Jon Spaihts interview: Passengers, Prometheus


Ahead of the release of Passengers, we got to chat to the man who came up with the idea, developed the film, and penned the script. Here’s how our natted with Jon Spaihts went…

When did you first write this? It was on the Black List in 2007…

Shortly before that. It was a brand new script that had just appeared on the Black List, and was circulating through Hollywood. The Black List is a list voted on by Hollywood producers and studio executives who are choosing their favourite as yet unproduced work.

Initially Keanu Reeves was attached to it, the Weinstein Company were going to do it, then Universal. So you’ve had some real up and downs.

The movie’s been ‘about’ to get made ever since it was written. This is is a particularly challenging film on a coupe of fronts. It’s set entirely on a luxury starship which is unlike anything that’s been done before. There are not many inexpensive ways of making that movie. It is also a movie that straddles genres. It’s a big dramatic love story, it’s funny, it’s a survival adventure, it has epic scale, and a very tiny cast. So it’s not like anything that’s been done before, and that’s disconcerting to major motion picture studios.

Where did the inspiration for the film come from? What did you want to explore?

I was interested in stories of isolation. I’ve always been drawn to protagonists who are set apart by some dilemma, or some trait with themselves, and when I first started thinking about someone stranded alone in space as a motif, my heart latched onto it. It felt like a potent metaphor for an experience many of us have internally. I think when science-fiction is working right what it can do is provide external metaphors for the internal experiences we all have already. We all experience apocalyptic feelings, we all feel like the sky is falling, the world’s on fire, we’ve been split in half, when our heart is broken or we lose a job, or we get sick, or some ambition falls short. So I think that this idea worked for that reason.

None of us have ever been in suspended animation on a starship. But there’s a way in which any two people in love are on a voyage that can last forever and which no-one else can see into. We’ve all had the experience of figuring out how much we can forgive inside a love story, how much we should hide, and how much we should reveal. So as much as it’s an unreal story, the emotional stakes are immediately accessible to everyone. We can all relate to this.

You talk about survival in space. Recently there’s been several of these films, such as Gravity and The Martian, which have found a large audience. Why do you think it is resonating so much with audiences at the moment?

That’s a good question. Some of that is about technology. Spaceflight is beginning to get very interesting in the real world. We’re really starting to talk not just about extended habitation in orbit but journeying to other planets. But astronauts are starting to be in the media more. There have been astronauts in the International Space Station for years, but none of them have been live streaming video and tweeting to students on the surface of the Earth before. But now they do, so we have a much more intimate relationship to astronauts and what they’re up to then we ever had before. A lot of that is actually about information technology rather than rocket science. I think there is a sense of ambition that technology on all fronts has crested, and people are starting to lift their eyes to the stars again.

Some people say this film is Gravity meets Titanic. Would you be happy with that description?

Well they are two wonderful and very successful films so I can’t be too unhappy with it! I think there is some shared dramatic DNA with both those films. It’s not exactly like either but I can understand why the comparison would be made.

In the years since you wrote the first version of the script has much changed?

The spine of the story has never changed much. In fact, there are many conversations and dramatic moments in the very first draft of this script that have been committed to film right here. At its heart the story has changed very little. In small ways it’s changed a lot. Conversations, beats, small moments have come and gone as an evolving creative team over the years has tried to make this movie the best it can be. The greatest point of change is the third act, the resolution of the story. So the many people who have read the version of the script that appeared on the Black List in 2007 will be most surprised at the end of the story. I think we’ve really lifted the story over the course of developing it.

Did that come from the studio or yourself?

It was very much internal to the little development team that have nursed the story. For years I was working with two producers, including Keanu Reeves, who were a tight little creative team. There have been directors and financiers who have tried to make it with us along the way but happily I’ve been the main guiding force of it throughout its journey. There’s been nothing that’s been thrust in from outside, which is a beautiful way to feel as a screenwriter on a big movie.

What did Keanu bring to those early stages? At one point he was also attached to star in it?

He’s got a wonderful head for story, and if I may say a great bullshit detector. With his producing partner Stephen Hamel they were also driving towards honesty and a spare cinematic language. They were great at tapping me on the shoulder and reminding me to keep the thing grounded and to avoid low hanging fruit, the easy laughs and easy sentimental plays.

To follow up on that, every actor brings a different sensibility to a role, but when you have an actor like Chris Pratt who can bring an amazing comedic presence and everyman quality to scenes, it’s a lot different than Keanu’s method as an actor.

Jennifer Lawrence too, as I know there were several different actresses attached. Did you temper the script once you knew you had these two in the roles?

I think there are different answers to that in different films depending on the genre. If you’re doing a free-form improvisational comedy then bringing in a new lead actor may transfer the story fundamentally. This story has very strong dramatic lines and so there hasn’t been an enormous amount of recreating this for our leads. I mean they’re some of best actors working today, and obviously two of the most popular. We’re incredibly fortunate to have them and they are actors enough to inhabit the characters, not force us to re-tailor the characters to their personalities. But that said, they’ve brought their own creative energy to the roles. They’ve given scenes new life. In a way they rewrite the movie by performing it, and you can see their creative stamp all over it.

How much did the good reception of this script in 2007 lead to you putting ideas into Prometheus? As they have several similarities, including a character in isolation as a dramatic fulcrum. And how did the reception of Prometheus then influence Passengers when it finally went into production?

Two interesting questions. Certainly Passengers was a large part of the reason I was brought into the room on Prometheus. Ridley Scott was a very active creative partner in the development of Prometheus’ story. We spent many months on it fleshing it out. The thing that got me the job though more than anything was the question ‘what would you do in a prequel to the film Alien’. I had not been prepared for that question as I thought I was taking a general meeting. But I found I had an opinion on it! I riffed about it for 45 minutes, and it was one of those moments where you’re asked the right question and something leaps out fully formed. Passengers did that. Prometheus did that. The spine of the story of Prometheus was born in that first conversation and never really changed, although I’m sure there was a lot of refinement along the way.

I’m also sure that Ridley loved Passengers and was attracted to me as a writer for that reason, so there were things in Passengers that may have pollinated Prometheus a little bit. There was never any intention to put elements of Passengers in, but I’m sure there was an inevitable ferment when creative projects rub elbows, and of course I’m the guy who invented both stories, so there’s things which I’m drawn to as an artist that recur. As to how the reception of Prometheus might have obliged us to modulate Passengers, I would say there is no way. Prometheus was much discussed, people loved and hated it, and it was fun to be a part of that but the ongoing crusade to make Passengers as a movie existed in a separate space.

You’re part of a generation that really grew up with science-fiction movies in their heyday with some of the great filmmakers making them. Were these reference points and inspiration for you?

I think my inspirations for this are probably more literary than cinematic. But film-wise obviously Kubrick’s 2001 casts a long shadow over all subsequent science-fiction films. If you ask a scientist to name a scientifically rigorous film they can stand behind they all say 2001 immediately. I know this because I’ve tried this! That is the movie where art and science met and fell in love. Any movie subsequently which has similar ambitions, and I would include Interstellar and Gravity here, would have genetic material from 2001 in them and I can’t deny this one has it too.

Often when we interview filmmakers creating sci-fi, their work is often pointing towards armageddon and doomsday, yet we have 300-400 years in the future in Passengers, and it seems optimistic?

Well you’ll see a through-line in the science-fiction that I write that trends in that direction. I have other original stories that I’m hoping to get made that the world has not yet been exposed to, but I am weary of dystopia. Of course I enjoy dystopian movies, and my friend Ridley Scott has some responsibility for this as in Blade Runner and Alien he created dystopian visions of the future that were so stylistically strong that literally decades of filmmakers fell into his footsteps. We are still looking at blue tinted films with dripping water on walls that represents the future. And as much as I enjoy them, I want to believe that’s not the only future we have to talk about. I believe the future we do find ourselves in down the road is one in which we have carried on more or less as we are now. New technology will have come, other technologies will have fallen by the wayside, the footprint of the human race will have changed in some way, but we will recognise ourselves.

Do the two leads only fall in love because they’re the only people on the spaceship?

Well there you ask the central question of the film. These are two people stranded rather arbitrarily together and some might say that makes their love suspect or a matter of convenience. At the same time I might say honestly review your life and how you met the people you have met. You will realise that when you dated that co-worker, or that person you met on a camping trip, or lived with in a building, you were making an equally arbitrary choice. In fact we meet a trivial fraction of the people in the world and yet we come away if we’re lucky with the feeling we’re with the person we’re supposed to be with. We found true love. I don’t claim to understand that paradox in the human understanding of love, but I think its universal.

How does writing this original story compare to all the work on existing properties you’re known for?

There’s a wide spectrum. Sometimes as a screenwriter I’ve been brought in to polish a story that’s sound. In that case I’m essentially a craftsman, and I come in to sand and lay new tile. Sometimes I’m brought in on something that as an underlying concept is strong, but the execution has fallen short or the direction has fallen short. Then I’m nearly writing an original story. I may start from a few characters or ideas but I’ve been given a free hand. There are things I’ve written that are adaptations or re-writes that to me feel like new stories.

Can you give any examples?

(Long pause. Really long pause)…. No….. But trust me they’re there! That said there is nothing quite like inventing your own story and world, and how it unfolds. That for me is the highest and most beautiful art. There is nothing like a first draft for a screenwriter.

We’ve heard that you’re on the set everyday. Do you alter the script at all?

As films go, and they vary widely, this has been a very faithful production. The script going into shooting is very much the script each day we’ve shot. There have been tiny adjustments by actors. Morton has been a sensitive and nuanced shepherd of this story everyday and has been very gracious in allowing me to work closely with him.

Can you describe the qualities that Jim and Aurora have as individuals? What makes them interesting as lead characters?

This is a tricky space as I don’t want to give away too much… A lot of it grew out of the question of what would it take to make a person not just their home but their home-world. To go and live in a new place knowing that the journey was so long there would be no going home to a place they recognised and very little hope that anyone they knew might follow them. That also seems unimaginable to most of us but I would argue that it’s more closely related to a lot of human experiences than we might admit. There are people who move from one continent to another, or even one side of the country to another and thereafter very rarely see their families again and quickly fall into a new circle of friends and out of the old one. Moves that cause to you to die in one world and be reborn in a new one are common here on Earth. A lot of us have had that experience.

But this is more drastic and irreversible, and the question of what would make someone leave their whole world behind is an interesting one. It goes without saying that there are people who would do it. There was a whole crazy outfit not long ago asking people to fly one way to Mars and die there, and they had a long waiting list! The best thing I can say is that in choosing the characters of the man and woman whose story this is I was looking for two people who’s reasons for leaving Earth were as different as possible.

What were the main challenges of the script?

For me it was telling a story that happens over a long period of time. How do you convey the long passages of isolation and boredom in exciting and interesting ways? How do you make it fast moving and entertaining? Threading that needle was incredibly tough.

Did you have to do much research on the effects of isolation?

Perhaps I should have! But because I believe the experience is so relatable I felt I could write it. I’ve never been stranded on a spaceship but I’ve moved to a new city and been poor and alone.

Neal Moritz (the producer) talked about the film having elements of a disaster movie? Can you talk more about that?

In the end the premise of the film obliged me to have something like that. This is in the end a story about something going terribly amiss on a starship journey, on a very grand and polished starship who’s engineers have done this many times before and have tried to iron out all the kinks. Yet this terrible thing has gone wrong to strand these people together. The foreground action is all about what its like for these two people to be stranded alone together in a strange place, but the underlying story is why has this happened? What went wrong on the ship, and how much more wrong can it go?

Was it difficult to write a story without a human antagonist?

For me it would have been more difficult to supply a human antagonist. This is in some ways a story about people in a shipwreck, and in some ways a sci-fi disaster movie. Space is so hard to survive in. The more you learn about what it takes to keep people alive on a space journey of any length, questions of supplies, of radiation, of temperature, of gravity and propulsion, the challenges become formidable. It’s amazing we even contemplate it at all. The moment you’re a spaceship and something might be wrong, you have all the danger you need. You’re surrounded by peril. A human antagonist becomes completely unnecessary.

It’s amazing you managed to get both Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt on this movie. Have they discussed with you what they loved about the script so much?

A little bit. It’s funny, as I have a lot of friends who write and make movies and they all say that in all of their casting meetings they always end up talking about wanting someone like Jennifer Lawrence and someone like Chris Pratt. These are the models of the people they aspire to, and we got the real ones in the same movie which is nearly impossible. To be perfectly honest there was great deal of luck in that because their schedules are very tight, so we were very lucky. But they both spoke in glowing terms about the script, and I think they both felt it was not like anything else they had seen before. I think they liked it aspired to be an artistic movie rather than a commercial one.

There were many conservations over the years where big financial interests in Hollywood tried to push us into making the movie more like the movies, to give us the gun fight, the aliens, the conspiracy that they needed to make them feel safe. But now we have been blessed with a creative team from the studio down that have chosen to back the story as it was written and take a leap with us. I think that was drew Chris and Jennifer to the project.

How much did the script change your career?

It changed my career a lot I think. It travelled laterally through Hollywood. Assistants, and development execs and creative execs passed it to their friends and so it propagated quickly through the chattering classes of Hollywood and earned me a meaningful reputation even though it took this long to make a film. There are ways in which I owe my career to this script and the reception it has gotten, even though it’s not been seen by the general public. But I would also say that the average person’s interest in Hollywood has grown. Some bad, we’re far too interested in box office, but we’re also far more interested in screen-writing. The internet has made it possible to pass screenplays around and read them. Passengers, by virtue of its position on the Black List and its popularity in Hollywood, has also been read widely by ordinary people who are interested in movies. I’ve met a lot of people and had interesting conservations about this film who are not connected to the industry.

Isn’t that a bad thing? A lot of people will know the ending…

A lot of people in basic numbers yes, as in thousands, but I think compared to the millions who will come and see this in theatres it’s a tiny percentage.

You’re the only writer on this. Given something that’s been around for almost 10 years, that never happens. How has that happened?

I think to some extent it’s good fortune. To some extent it’s been protected by various creative partners along the way. Some of it is the fact it was an original story, written well, that I was custodian of for a few years at the beginning, and I suppose the reputation it gleaned languishing unmade for so long became a kind of protection. By the time we actually got around to making it, it was a little like making a movie out of a well loved Broadway play and I was the playwright.

Jon Spaihts, thank you very much!

Paseengers is available on DVD, Blu-ray, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray and on demand now.

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